Opinion divided over Indian opinion polls

Recent move by electoral body to solicit views on banning pre-poll surveys triggers debate and divisions.

A woman votes in Bangalore, five crucial states will go to the polls in December to elect provincial assemblies [AP]

To ban or not to ban – that seems to be the sticky dilemma facing the Election Commission of India (EC) over pre-poll opinion surveys in the world’s largest democracy.

With elections round the corner – five crucial states go to the polls to elect provincial assemblies in a month’s time – a recent move by the EC to solicit views on whether pre-poll surveys should be banned outright has divided public opinion.

Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Mizoram will have elections in November and December 

India’s 16th Lok Sabha (Parliamentary) general elections will also be held in May 2014.

Currently, according to EC rules, opinion polls are banned for just 48 hours before voting commences.

The EC, however, has now sought views of all political parties on whether the ban on opinion polls should be extended – banning it altogether before elections.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Mukund Padmanabhan, editor, The Hindu Business Line said: “This is a restriction of free speech and outside the purview of the Election Commission of India, which is tasked with the superintendence and control of elections, and ensuring they are free and fair.”

Divided opinion

Broadcasters and editors have expressed their displeasure at this move while political parties seem to be divided over the issue.

To begin with, the ruling Congress party had expressed support on restricting publication of opinion polls.

A written reply by the Congress to the Election Commission had said that the party “fully endorses” the EC’s views.

KC Mittal, the secretary of the party’s Legal and Human Rights Department, said that the “opinion polls during election are neither scientific nor is there any transparent process for such polls”.

Digvijay Singh, a top Congress leader, has also come out against opinion polls, saying the polls “lack credibility” and are “manipulated” by vested interests or opposition parties to swing public opinion and are nothing but “a farce”.

The ban, many say, would amount to gagging public opinion [Anupama Nath/AP]

Other political parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party have endorsed the ban, while BJP, the main opposition party, has expressed its reservation over the move.

BJP leaders say the Congress is supporting the “unconstitutional attempt” as the current spate of opinion polls are predicting a gloomy picture for the party in the upcoming vote.

“Parties view opinion polls differently at different times, according to the results being forecast!” Sagarika Ghosh, deputy editor of the news channel, CNN-IBN, told Al Jazeera.

But not everyone is entirely dismissive of the idea of curtailing opinion polls.

“The Indian elections are held in phases which is not the case in most other countries. Besides different dates for different state elections, elections are often conducted in several phases for one single state.This also means that opinion polls and exit polls about one phase can influence later phases”, explains Vipul Mudgal, a visiting senior fellow and director of publics and policies programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Media protest

The proposed ban has, however, led to a lot of protest by leading national dallies and broadcasters across the nation.

NK Singh of The Broadcast Editor’s Association (BEA) had told newspapers that this is “an attempt to curb freedom of expression” and was undemocratic.

Many senior journalists and broadsheets have voiced their concern.

“The EC has had a bee in its bonnet about opinion and exit polls for many years now, and seems bothered by the possibility that they could influence election outcomes. But there are two quick responses to this. Hard hitting commentaries in newspapers or strong editorial positions in the media could influence outcomes as well – can we afford to ban them? Second, there is no ground for preventing people from predicting who will win or lose – to maintain this should not be done through an opinion poll is illogical,” says Padmanabhan.

Most democratic nations across the world endorse opinion surveys and polls especially in the run-up to the elections.

While some nations like Sri Lanka, South Korea, Mexico, Russia among others restrict publishing pre-election poll and survey results, others like the US, UK, Japan, Pakistan do not.

In fact, most political parties in India conduct their in house surveys to gauge the mood among the electorate and devise strategies to win public favour during their various phases of their electoral campaigns. 

“CNN-IBN is considered the best in the Indian media industry as far as election polling is concerned. Our opinion polls are trusted and credible. We take pride in the fact that we are the gold standard as far as election-related polls are concerned. If opinion polls are banned then CNN-IBN will challenge such a ban in a court of law and we are confident that the ban will not stand up to judicial scrutiny”, insisted Ghosh.

Intense debate

In the run up to the elections this issue has also sparked a lot of comments about the ruling Congress party which supported the EC’s purported ban on opinion polls.

BJP leaders have said that stopping opinion polls will amount to muzzling freedom of speech and would be unconstitutional.

BJP’s senior leader and Prime Minister aspirant, Narendra Modi condemned the Congress’s stand on this as a mean to muzzle “our right to free speech”.

The recent EC move has fuelled the debate over opinion polls
  [Fayaz Kabli/Reuters]

While supporting the right to air opinion surveys, Modi was also quick to point out that several pre-poll surveys had got it wrong in his home state Gujarat, predicting his defeat in 2002, 2007 and 2012 – elections that he resoundingly won.

Opinion polls have often erred in predicting wins or losses in Indian elections in the past.

For the time being though, opinion poll results on the upcoming elections are taking up reams of newsprint and hours of air time on private television channels.

The results are mixed, with fortunes of the political parties fluctuating from one survey to the other – depending on who commissioned them.

Political parties find that the results of opinion polls aired on TV influence the voters to change their minds.

India’s senior broadcast psephologist Dorab R Sopariwala told Al Jazeera, “There is no evidence to show that opinion polls affect voting behaviour consistently in any on direction. Some say there is a bandwagon effect; others say there is an underdog effect. As far as I am aware, no study has been carried out in India to assess the impact of opinion polls.

“How are opinion polls different from newspaper editorials, articles by journalists, political speeches and advertisements. They also may influence voting behaviour. In the market place for ideas and opinions we should, ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’,” says Sopariwala.

The debate over the findings have grown more intense, with the future of the opinion polls itself now at stake.

As Mudgal of the Centre for the Study of Developing Socities says: “I don’t think banning is a good idea but it will be useful to assess and fix a deadline before which all opinion surveys must finish. It is not a bad idea to set some ground rules for opinion or exit polls.”

The jury is still out on opinion polls in India.